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Artist as alchemist? Pulitzer exhibit makes the case for Gordon Matta-Clark

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 27, 2009 - What would Gordon Matta-Clark make of the neglected buildings that dot the St. Louis cityscape? Art.

Matta-Clark was an artist who saw the possibilities in abandoned structures destined to be demolished. Using a power saw, he sliced through wood, plaster and whatever other materials were used in construction. That was his way of bringing attention not only to the overlooked aesthetics of the built environment but to the relationship between structures and their surroundings.

"When you look at his work, the first thing you (may) notice is how the house is made," said Francesca Herndon-Consagra, senior curator at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. "The second thing -- this is kind of a violent act. Third you might start thinking that there's an order to this incision. Finally comes an awareness that this house is going to be demolished. This neighborhood is changing. Why is it changing? He ultimately wanted you to ask a lot of questions."

More than 30 years after his death, the Pulitzer is featuring the New York artist in an exhibition called "Urban Alchemy/Gordon Matta-Clark," which opens Friday with a free public reception from 5-9 p.m. The show runs through June 5.

Matta-Clark was a prolific artist in the 1970s, but his career spanned only a decade. He died in 1978 at the age of 35 from pancreatic cancer. During his short career, Matta-Clark was influenced by conditions in Soho and other Manhattan neighborhoods that had seen physical decay and a loss of middle-class residents to the suburbs. Empty manufacturing buildings and lofts were commonplace -- and that's where Matta-Clark spent much of his time working.

Property owners would sometimes donate their buildings to him. But for most projects, Matta-Clark went to abandoned tenements or warehouses unannounced. He navigated dangerous environments and risked his safety to start making the strategic cuts.

Matta-Clark took a striking interest in objects and buildings worn down by time. He is considered a pioneer in working with the raw materials of the city, Herndon-Consagra said. Besides being involved in the so-called earth art movement of the early 1970s, which emphasized a connection between built forms and the natural landscape, Matta-Clark was involved in minimalism, which considers structures in their pure geometric form.

Preserved Through Photographs

The abandoned houses and warehouses he carved through typically met the wrecking ball shortly after the end of his projects.

"You don't have the feeling of what it was like to walk through his buildings that had these very geometric cuts through them, and where light and rain and wind would come through because they would be demolished as early as two days after or the same day he finished," Herndon-Consagra said.

The longest any of the structures lived after his cuts was roughly two years. So most of Matta-Clark's work was preserved through photographs and films of the interventions, in which the artist, often with friends in tow, is shown exploring an empty building before slicing through its core. In another video, he is constructing a wall out of garbage.

Two of these films will be shown at the Pulitzer exhibition, and a video of Matta-Clark making his cuts is also on display at Citygarden. Segments of the structures spared from demolition are also part of the show. That includes a cutout of a pier that once sat along the Hudson River.

The exhibition also includes graffiti art and dozens of photographs of the homes, buildings and objects that Matta-Clark cut through. One image shows the range of tiny pieces of property that the artist bought as part of his work.

Herndon-Consagra said her challenge was to select pieces in the Matta-Clark collection that work with the Pulitzer's space. The building, designed by noted Japanese architect Tadao Ando, is marked by its slits and unconventionally shaped windows that bring to mind the work of Matta-Clark.

"It's very much what this artist did to abandoned buildings," Herndon-Consagra said. Ando and Matta-Clark "had the same idea of breaking the architectural box with slits and cuts that are unexpected. Both our architecture and this artist are sympathetic to each other."

St. Louis Similarity

Another reason for the Pulitzer's interest, she said, was the connection that can be drawn between the environment in Matta-Clark's work and that of modern-day St. Louis.

"We're surrounded here at the Pulitzer by so many abandoned buildings and lots that we thought this is a way for people to talk about the plight of neighborhoods like our and cities like ours, where there is this fabulous housing stock," added Herndon-Consagra.

On the mezzanine level of its building, the Pulitzer will show a movie and display books about St. Louis architecture and urban life.

The foundation is also highlighting Matta-Clark's social activism. "He wanted to make a comment that when you split a house you are splitting families, you are splitting neighborhoods," Herndon-Consagra said. "They become metaphors of the human condition."


In conjunction with the exhibition, the Pulitzer and Washington University's George Warren Brown School of Social Work are collaborating on a program that includes artist engagement, a speaker series and web outreach. The programming will launch in January, and some of the details are yet to be determined.

As part of the partnership, local artist Jenny Murphy will be teaching the process of taking bulk trash items and refurbishing them into household items like chairs and shelves. Another artist is scheduled to run an afterschool project that involves taking elements of the urban environment and creating instillation art.

Lisa Harper Chang, manager of community engagement with the Pulitzer (who also has an appointment with the Brown School), said the idea is to highlight efforts that shine a light on what Matta-Clark was all about -- finding use in objects and structures that seemingly no one values.

Through a potential partnership with a regional employment agency, Chang said the program will also direct its attention toward disenfranchised people, like ex-offenders and homeless veterans who are in the process of rehabilitation.

A panel and lecture series to begin early next year will feature discussions about various aspects of community building. One example, Chang said, is a potential panel on greening efforts and the proliferation of community gardens.

Another project involves asking St. Louis residents to use Google Maps to submit their own tour of what people who visit the city should see.

Chang said her hope is that Matta-Clark's work can help spark a larger discussion about the challenges facing St. Louis.

"He was a social activist who was uncompromising on some level," Chang said. "He tried to respond to challenges in his environment by being the artist and architect he was. It's a good lesson of how to think about who am I in context to the rest of the environment and what can I do to effect change."

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